This may surprise you, but I am having trouble with math. There I was, idly lying around, barely paying attention to the Denver news when I learned that Gunnison appears to be the epicenter of Colorado’s covid-19 outbreak.
I found all the charts on the state’s virus page, which shows that yes indeed, if you want to use big numbers we appear to be way more infected than any other part of the state. If we had 100,000 people in Gunnison County, we would have 460 cases, well ahead of second-place Eagle County (Vail), which would have 341 cases.
Now, Gunnison County does not have 100,000 people. We do not have 50,000, probably not even 20,000. If I knew how to do math, I could extrapolate, because as of last count the actual number of confirmed virus cases in Gunnison County was 79 — which sounds far less ominous than 460.
Here’s where I get really lost in the math, though: if you had asked me, which I’m sure you were about to, I would have guessed that Eagle County’s population was pretty close to Gunnison’s. Eagle is smaller, area-wise, but more densely packed along I-70. And it’s known as a “resort county,” a designation that often escapes Gunnison, but it’s pretty clear that the outbreaks in rural Colorado are taking place in the counties with a strong ski/tourist presence.
In actual cases, Eagle has 187, which seems like substantially more than Gunnison’s 79, and like a lot for a small mountain county. And yet, they’re 120 cases behind us, in math. This requires bigger skills than I have to explain it.
So now I don’t know. The county keeps saying we are doing a good job of following orders, and believes the protocols we have in place are among the strictest in the state. Seventy-nine doesn’t sound like a lot, really, especially when at least one of those was a visitor who subsequently left the valley. And especially if you consider the county itself is reporting 75 cases. (Perhaps the reporting times are different.)
As of Saturday evening our hospital had admitted 20 virus patients total (not all at once), sending 10 of them elsewhere. The hospital has been running at about 30 percent capacity. None of this makes it seem like we ought to be leading the state in the virus race that no one wants to win.
But I do think we have pretty significant transmission vectors out there, and Lynn works at one of them.
My bank, which is diagonally across from my business, adapted quite quickly. Within days of first awareness that this was going to be a problem locally, they converted an office into a walk-up window, installing plexiglass with a small speaking hole and a slightly larger transaction opening. At least some of the tellers are wearing gloves. The night deposit box is also available nearby, and the bank has offered to mail receipts.
At every checkout counter at Safeway, a piece of plexiglass stands between the checker and the customer. It’s not a large piece, considering, because you still put your groceries on the belt and access the credit card machine, but when you’re directly across from the checker there’s a barrier between the two of you. It’s not much, but it’s something.
But at the post office where Lynn works there are now strips of tape on the floor, marking off every six feet. To get to them, or to reach a post office box, you walk right next to other people. That’s not really the PO’s fault, because it’s a 1930s building, but here’s a thought: send counter customers in the right-hand door that rarely gets used, so that most of the waiting is done outside, where six-foot lines could still be installed. (This would work better had someone not run his car into and smashed the ADA-accessible ramp last winter.)
Then the people going to their boxes could come and go through the left door, and it would cut down substantially on proximity issues. Plexiglass shields ought to be installed at every counter, although apparently some personnel have complained they wouldn’t be able to give people larger packages. There is a door; large packages could be set outside it.
I obsess over the post office, a lot more than Lynn does, but this is why: one of her co-workers went to the county’s drive-to virus screening site on Friday and was told to stay home for some days. (10? 14? The math is never really clear there, either.) I don’t know if she was given one of the precious few tests. If it were me and I knew she worked at the post office, I would have instantly given her a test, even if it was the last one on hand.
If she does have the virus, then everyone at the Post Office has potentially been exposed. All of her co-workers, all of their customers, all of their box holders. Some of the people in the Gunnison Post Office then go onto other offices, as Lynn does to Almont. This means the virus could be carried to other parts of the county. All of these workers, customers and box holders can then be carting it back to their families, which is where the worry becomes personal for me.
If this isn’t threat enough, another co-worker was to have returned from Florida over the weekend, planning to report to work today — which is actually in defiance of the county’s order (that I have to admit is fairly well hidden in a stream of daily webpage and Facebook posts) to stay at home for seven days upon arrival in the county.
This is the problem with “essential services”: they feel essential, and apparently somehow immune from this contagion. Lynn got a highly personalized robo-call from the Postmaster General herself, telling employees that they are vital to this nation and that they must show up for all their shifts.
Somewhere recently I read that people can be asymptomatic, albeit presumably contagious, for five days, and that once the virus makes its presence known, it is taking another nine or 10 days to reach the severity with which one might require hospitalization. I heard a doctor on TV this morning say that people can walk into a hospital on their own power and within 24 hours be on a ventilator (if the hospital has enough) in critical condition.
By the time the county decides one of its “essential” places where everyone can come and go at will is a community hotspot, it’s going to be way too late.
I can’t lay all this fault at the county level. If there were a sufficient number of test kits, preferably ones that incubated in minutes rather than days (almost weeks), we would be able to be a lot more proactive.
But there aren’t, and this morning CBS reported that there still appear to be a number of ventilators in the national stockpile, although all the ones California received from it were broken. Dr. Deborah Birx, whose title escapes me now, adroitly side-stepped every question Gayle King put to her and fairly announced her sad strategy: wait until this pandemic is over, evaluate what went wrong, and be better prepared for the next one.
That is almost as helpful as the president, who pushed his timeline back (he’s like a parent trying not to tell the kids that they aren’t even through the first state of their cross-country trip), still putting dates on it despite pleas from his health advisors. But he couldn’t stop there: he had to question the need for so many masks, and went on to suppose that hospitals are bootlegging the spares out their back doors.
With this questionable leadership to inspire us, it is no wonder that the Post Office sees no reason to tell employees to stay home. But there’s really no reason they couldn’t try other mitigations to keep people safe. The fate of the most-exposed county in Colorado depends on it.